NORTHAMPTON -- I remember the Iron Horse as an exciting place. In the late 1990s and first few years of the new millennium, the relatively small beer hall got some of the nicest names in music to come through Western Mass. During this blessed spell, each week of the calendar boasted another impressive name, not usually groups with No. 1 hits at the time, but slick indie outfits at the height of their runs, saddle-sore folk icons who'd been playing to packed houses since who can remember when, and rarified audiovisual acts from overseas.
In concert with its affiliated venue Pearl Street, the Iron Horse was what made Northampton interesting to me.
The venues stood out due the clear hand of a keen curator, an eye for acts with a sense of urgency. It was always their first tour in the states, or his first visit to the East Coast in 22 years, or one of the final shows of a hot young band burning itself out on wakefulness and insatiability. When I saw Of Montreal there in 2004 the singer, or so we'd all read, was fresh out of the loony bin. Their performance beamed with manic glee. When my father took me to see Leon Redbone, the audience was thrilled to see that the guy still sounded and looked exactly the same. Different people rush to be reassured of very different things, and the Iron Horse specialized in this rush.
One year Beck played a secret gig there before launching a massive tour, I heard, and the Microphones performed the most silent, poignant set imaginable to a building stuffed with stoned college kids. This was before Brooklyn music took over, when the country's hippest bands came from Olympia, Washington and Athens, Georgia and small towns in between. Our own Northampton was a whistle stop on the DIY-cool express. When the seminal French electronic duo Air arrived in town it felt too good to be true, but it wasn't. It was too good, and it was true.
Then it stopped, and for more than a decade I haven't felt the same rumble of massive herds passing through the valley to our east. After seeing two recent shows at the Iron Horse, though, my old battle injury (I played a young soldier in Hamlet and haven't been able to make a decision since) is tingling. Herds may be returning to the valley.
On a hot night this past July I was walking across Northampton, having finished dinner with a friend and now meandering the town's side streets. I think I caught myself humming along to a familiar Dick Dale song before I realized what I was hearing. One of the mid-century guitarist's searing electric surf instrumentals was vibrating the pavement underfoot as I poked around the corner to see who this cover band was. A flyer caught my eye: "The Real Dick Dale, Right Here, Right Now, Dammit Andrew, Where've you been?!"
"Is Dick Dale really playing tonight?" I asked the disinterested doorman, oblivious to my implication that the performer in question may or may not still be alive. "Like, the Dick Dale?"
"Yup," he said. "But there's only 20 minutes left so you pretty much missed the show."
No I didn't. Just past the entry partition stood the longhaired, sweat drenched 76-year-old shredding a vintage Fender to a crowded house of young and old partying like The Endless Summer never ended. It felt like the center of the universe. Dale wrapped up with his genre-defining 1962 song "Miserlou." The heart-thumping electric guitar reworking of a traditional Middle Eastern song that Dale grew up hearing his Lebanese uncle play on a one-stringed instrument launched the popularity of surf rock music itself. The single garnered Dale a fresh wave of popularity in 1994 when Tarantino used it over the opening credits of Pulp Fiction.
"Come downstairs and say hi after the show," said Dale as the crowd roared. I didn't know what to expect but hopped right in line. The men on either sides of me carried albums from the 1960s to get autographed. Finally rounding the corner at the stairs' bottom I saw Dale seated at a table as a younger woman, his daughter, sold flashy merch. I have enough T-shirts and own the guy's music already, so when she placed a small box of black and white photos the size of baseball cards on the table I zeroed right in.
"He was going through some old boxes and found 300 of these original fan club headshots from 1958," she tossed off as if it weren't the finest sentence she could have possible constructed. "They're $5 if you're interested, but they're pretty old so you may not like them."
I spent those $5 with the same eagerness, I like to think, as a mind-blown fan having seen his or her first electric guitar show in 1958. Maybe Brian Wilson has the same one on his mantle.
Just a few weeks ago I heard from an old friend who lives in Brooklyn and plays in a touring indie rock group called Fort Lean.
"Do you live near Northampton? We're playing the Iron Horse on Wednesday," he wrote. The band consists entirely of college pals of mine who never stopped rocking out together and earned some good press lately, and they were touring with a hot opening group called, suitably, Surfer Blood.
Neither act has grabbed the national spotlight, so the sight of a house brimming with college students there to dance slapped a smile onto my face. My friends took the stage by storm and the audience
couldn't get enough. They were rock stars, for a few hours that night. The Iron Horse felt like it used to, like the kind of place where an exciting new band could be discovered collectively by an audience who then shares this gold with the rest of the world, by blog, before class in the morning.
I have no clue how the Iron Horse, part of the larger Iron Horse Entertainment Group, curates programming. I don't even know if my good old days are yours. Maybe as the 19-year-old me flew into a tizzy while Air and the Magnetic Fields and The Blow and The Apples in Stereo played right here in Northampton you were busy enjoying other things.
But if you felt that last rumble and then gave up, go back and put your ear to the ground.
In fact, I've found the perfect show through which you can re-discover the Iron Horse. On May 4 the Standells themselves will be rocking the joint! Why don't you look impressed? Aww come on, you'd know them if you heard them. They were one of the most successful bands of the original garage rock generation with several exceptional albums and singles including the 1966 Boston pride classic "Dirty Water." And this isn't some limp one-off comeback run; the boys have been hooting and hollering like the crescendo of "Animal House" for the last half century. Look up the song "Medication" if you need convincing, and find a clip of their appearance on "The Munsters" when you want more. Then dial it back to "Little Sally Tease."
Even if I'm making the ground rumble all by myself that night, you'll feel it.